The number of face-to-face meetings between Australian prime ministers and Chinese leaders and senior officials*, December 1972-August 2022:

* The vast majority of the Chinese leaders and senior officials captured in the above dataset are Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials at the level of Politburo or above or Chinese government officials at the level of Minister or above. In a small number of cases, the data includes meetings between prime ministers and senior Chinese representatives who did not hold CCP or Chinese government positions at those ranks (e.g., the meeting between Prime Minister Bob Hawke and at that time former Vice Premier Gu Mu in 1987). Although the inclusion of these meetings can certainly be debated given that they may not carry the same import as a true leader-level meeting, I err on the side of adding them given the prime ministerial participation.

The database on which the above graph is based is still very much a work in progress and doubtless misses some face-to-face meetings between Australian prime ministers and Chinese leaders and senior officials. This is especially likely to be true of the first decade or so of the formal diplomatic relationship. The absence of any in-person meetings in 2000 also appears odd in the context of at minimum one meeting per year from 1992 onwards. Any corrections or additions that readers might be able to offer would be gratefully received. I’ll continue updating and correcting this database and graph as I capture more detail.

Noting these caveats, here are a few preliminary observations:

  • Australia is currently experiencing the most sustained period since 1989-91 without in-person engagement between the Prime Minister and Chinese leaders and senior officials. This historical contrast is especially striking considering that the data suggests that prime ministers met in person with Chinese leaders and senior officials on average nearly five times each year in the ten-year period 2006-15.
  • With the exception of the freeze in high-level diplomatic relations between Canberra and Beijing after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Australia-China relationship has never experienced such a sustained break in face-to-face meetings between prime ministers and Chinese leaders and senior officials. This current curtailment of engagement at the level of Prime Minister has lasted more than two years since November 2019 (last update August 2022).
  • Speculation is swirling about whether Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will have a face-to-face meeting with President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang during summit season in November, which will include the EAS, G20, and APEC meetings in Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand, respectively. There are, of course, many political and policy developments that could upend the prospects of such a leader-level meeting later this year. The Albanese government’s new review of the 99-year lease by the Chinese company Landbridge of the Port of Darwin and the potential use of Australia’s Magnitsky-style sanctions against senior Chinese government or Party officials who have been implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere are just two such examples. It’s therefore unclear at this stage whether such a meeting will occur. But even if such a meeting does take place, the spell of a total lack of face-to-face meetings between November 2019 and November 2022 would (unless I’m mistaken?) still be the longest single absence of direct contact at that level since the more than three-year gap between Premier Li Peng’s Australia visit in November 1988 and Vice Premier Zhu Rongji’s visit in February 1992.